By Rene Cizio
October 09, 2010
SOUTHGATE - A whistleblower lawsuit against 28th District Judge James Kandrevas has been settled out of court by the city.
City Attorney Edward Zelenak said Friday that the city's insurance carrier recommended that the case be settled as a cost-savings measure over further litigation.
He said the City Council discussed the settlement during an executive session Wednesday and then unanimously approved it.
He would not provide details of the settlement at this time, but said, "The city got away very inexpensively."
A settlement in an unrelated lawsuit against Kandrevas also was approved by the council Wednesday.
Zelenak said there are no other lawsuits pending against the court.
The whistleblower lawsuit was filed Aug. 11 in Wayne County Circuit Court by Lori Shemka, a former court administrator. In it, she alleged wrongful discharge, violation of the state Whistleblowers' Protection Act and First Amendment violations.
Shemka, an attorney, worked at the court for about five months before she was fired.
She was hired Jan. 2 as court administrator, was appointed as a magistrate Feb. 4 and was fired May 15, but paid through June 1.
Shemka alleged in the lawsuit that she was fired for pointing out numerous improper and unethical financial practices at the court.
Among her allegations in the lawsuit were:
Commingling of funds.
Violation of the overtime requirements of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.
Some court employees conducted non-court business in the court building during business hours and used court resources.
A separate work program bank account was set up without approval from the city, which is the court's funding unit, and the account contained about $200,000.
Those claims were dismissed after investigation by the state Court Administrative Office.
Another claim in the lawsuit was that Kandrevas created a nonprofit corporation Achievers Club softball program for disabled children and was using court employees and the court's name to collect donations.
The state Court Administrative Office responded by fax May 14 to Shemka and Kandrevas, ordering Kandrevas to stop collecting donations for his private charity while promoting his position with the court, or it could be reported to the state Judicial Tenure Commission, according to the lawsuit.
Another allegation was that there was fraudulent representation by the court to the state and federal governments in a drug court grant application seeking funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Shemka alleged that the grant was seeking money for two drug court employees on the basis that they were laid off by the city, which, she said, was not the case because the two employees' salaries and benefits were not funded by the city.
Kandrevas' attorney, Philip Thomas, said Kandrevas did not apply for the grant. He said court employees determine eligibility and fill out the applications.
"If the grant should not have been applied for, then it should have not been applied for," Thomas said. "It wasn't my client that made the determination to apply for the grant."
The U.S. Justice Department still is investigating the allegation.
Shemka's attorney, Deborah Gordon, said it wasn't until after Shemka brought all of her issues to Kandrevas and her concerns were not addressed by the judge that she took it to the next level and reported it to the state Court Administrative Office.
Shemka received a termination letter from Kandrevas on May 15, citing "philosophical differences" relating to the operation of the court. The locks on the building were changed and employees packed her personal belongings.
Shemka's lawsuit said that her firing was in retaliation for her refusal to violate state law, and that action violates state public policy prohibiting an employer from firing an employee for refusing to violate a law.
Thomas said Kandrevas asked the advice of Zelenak on firing Shemka two months before actually doing it, before the Court Administrative Office stepped in. Zelenak said he does not recall the date of their conversation, but that he did advise Kandrevas.
During Kandrevas' deposition for the lawsuit, Gordon said she was shocked by Kandrevas' "less than forthcoming" manner.
She said he invoked the Fifth Amendment provision against self-incrimination many times during the three-day questioning period, or said he didn't remember when asked a question.
"When he took the Fifth Amendment 222 times, it was just 'wow,'" Gordon said.
"I was really surprised by how unable he was to remember key facts and tried to distance himself from having knowledge or a role.
"I was shocked by how often he told me he had a bad memory; I get that from a lot of other people, but I don't expect that from a judge.
"Get off the bench if you can't remember or give a straight answer."
Thomas said they didn't answer because there is a possibility they would waive the right to answer more thoroughly if there were ever a criminal case, which he said he does not believe is a possibility.
"If we asserted that right 222 times, then we probably answered 2,222 questions," he said.
Thomas said the case was "far-reaching" and "meritless."
"It is very, very easy to make allegations against a public official," he said.
"When a person makes allegations against a public official, almost any (government) agency feels compelled to investigate it. If they don't, (it could appear) they're doing something unethical or trying to cover for a public official.
"You will not find one finding that Kandrevas has done anything wrong."